Peter Rosen’s uninspired docu on master violinist Jascha Heifetz jogs along fairly briskly in dealing with the gifted prodigy’s early years: his first public performance at age 5 in Vilna, his formative childhood at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg, his much-heralded Carnegie Hall bow at 17. But once Heifetz becomes a household name, Rosen struggles mightily to milk drama not from his musical genius, but from his relatively unremarkable personal life. The sole docu on one of the greatest violinists of all time, “God’s Fiddler” should be guaranteed a TV run after its Nov. 11 limited release.
Heifetz’s fame insured ample archival material at every stage of his career, from curly-headed tot to cosmopolitan man-about-town. He was also, in his own words, “a camera fiend,” and homemovies abound; footage of him twirling a topi in India or holding outdoor benefits in earthquake-devastated Japan alternates with long excerpts of virtuoso performances closer to home. Musicians worldwide pay homage to his immense talent: Itzhak Perlman, an important presence throughout, describes Heifetz in concert as “a cyclone standing in the same place and spinning around.”
One of the docu’s most surprising segments illustrates that Heifetz was not always a musical machine: After moving from New York to Beverly Hills, he engaged in all manner of sports and thoroughly partook of the epicurean pleasures his intensive training denied him. The receipt of his first ever negative review, however, warned of encroaching complacency and quickly returned him to dedication and austerity, making him a dull boy but an incomparable fiddler.
For a documentary about a musician, “God’s Fiddler” seems curiously uninformative about Heifetz’s music, aside from thankfully long passages of his performances and general praise of his mastery. Heifetz is declared the first modern violin virtuoso, but nowhere is his modernity explained. Instead, stylistic debates over emotion vs. technique inexorably turn to questions of personality (Heifetz, whose face showed little emotion, was sometimes criticized for “coldness,” his extraordinary technical perfection deemed “mechanical”). Rosen only briefly mentions the muscle damage that eventually prevented Heifetz from raising his arms (he played anyway), but includes endless testimony on how his reserve could occasionally turn to warmth at parties.
The docu’s final, overlong section latches onto Heifetz’s surviving accompanist, secretary and ex-students, who offer endless anecdotes about his teaching methods and recount each detail of his everyday routine. Only belatedly does Rosen reference Heifetz’s two ex-wives and numerous estranged children as proof of the maestro’s tragic sacrifices to his muse.